A potent threat to Syria rises in exile

Former Syrian vice president launches a public campaign to link President Assad to Lebanese assassination.

Former Syrian Vice President Abdel-Halim Khaddam has become the country's first high-level official to break ranks with the Syrian government and join the country's external opposition, adding to a sense of unease on the Damascus street for the future of the regime.

From self-imposed exile in Paris over the past two weeks, Mr. Khaddam called on the Syrian opposition to join him in overthrowing the regime, calling President Bashar al-Assad a "traitor" who has caused "serious damage" to the country.

Since the beginning of the Iraq war, Syria has come under intense international pressure to close its borders to insurgents entering Iraq and stop supporting militant groups.

And after former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri's assassination in Beirut last February, protests on Lebanese streets forced the withdrawal of Syrian troops from the country. Since then, two United Nations investigative reports have found that Mr. Hariri's killing could not have occurred without the knowledge of high-ranking Syrian officials.

Khaddam's allegations that Mr. Assad threatened Hariri before he was killed may set off a new crisis between Syria and the UN committee looking into the Hariri assassination by bringing the inquiry one step closer to the presidency.

The investigative team, which interviewed Khaddam on Jan. 6, last week renewed its request to meet with Assad and Foreign Minister Farouq al-Sharaa. The Syrian government announced that Mr. Sharaa would face the commission. But Assad has maintained his immunity from questioning. On Sunday, Assad visited Saudi Arabia and Egypt, which have both played key roles in mediating between the UN and Syria.

With Khaddam's public campaign against Assad, the Syrian government may face its first real internal challenge from the country's frayed opposition. Until now there was no well-known Syrian figure to unify the opposition.

"He's absolutely an alternative because he's a well-known man," says a Syrian analyst who asked not to be named for fear of repercussions. "He knows how to deal with the people and the country. He has the backing of so many regional and local powers. Otherwise, how would you explain the fury of the government to his statements?"

Last week, the finance ministry froze the assets of Khaddam and his family. A few days earlier, the Syrian parliament called Khaddam a "traitor" and opened a criminal investigation into charges of treason and corruption. As a member of the Syrian government for more than 30 years, Khaddam grew to become the second most powerful man in Syria under Hafez al-Assad, Bashar's father, and was largely known for being the architect of Syria's Lebanon policy.

After serving as minister of foreign affairs and deputy prime minister, Khaddam was appointed vice president in 1984. He held the post until his resignation last summer. During his rule, Khaddam forged strong ties with Lebanon's Hariri. Like many other government leaders, Khaddam developed a reputation in Syria for fueling corruption through bribes and nepotism.

"When he was powerful in Syria, no investor could enter their business in Syria without the OK of Khaddam," says Marwan Kabalan, a professor of political science at Damascus University. "Khaddam was the one who was always sent to Saudi Arabia by Hafez al-Assad. He had strong connections to Saudi businessmen, including the Saudi royal family and King Abdallah."

But Khaddam's power waned after Bashar al-Assad assumed power in 2000. Tensions between Khaddam and Assad allegedly came to a climax in 2004 when Assad moved to extend the term of Hariri's adversary, Lebanese President Emile Lahoud, say analysts.

Muhanad Baaly, a government worker, says Khaddam could never become a legitimate leader of the opposition. "Khaddam does not care about the future of his country," he says. "He only cares about himself and his children. A man who has been stealing from the country for 40 years, and now he's clean and speaking about democracy?"

And the fact that he's speaking against the Syrian government from his lavish home in Paris, at a time when Syria remains under intense international pressure, has also angered many.

"I would have expected Mr. Khaddam to call a press conference with the international media here in Damascus to say I have a different agenda for our political life, to say that the agenda of Mr. Bashar is not suitable," says Muhammad al-Habash, a member of parliament. "If he had done that, he could have helped us move toward a more open civil society and democracy in Syria. But unfortunately he is choosing to work with other powers and this is dangerous for Syria."

Nonetheless, some of the most stalwart critics of Khaddam and his past say he could at least help the country's floundering internal and external opposition movement gather momentum.

"Perhaps [Khaddam's] role is to quicken the fraying of the regime," says Yassin Haj-Saleh, an opposition leader and writer who spent 16 years in prison under Hafez al-Assad. "He has opened a gap that the opposition can exploit. The Syrian public is now seeing a big man from within the regime say this regime did so and so. So perhaps this will encourage the public and the people within the regime to think differently about the future of the country."

But, without the link of another strongman within the country and without greater outright popular support, many say that real change is difficult. "Nobody can undo the system unless they are from inside the system," says one Syrian dissident who asked not to be named. "He's someone who could lead us through a transitional period. And, yes, he's corrupt - but not as much as those from the Assad family."

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